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University of Ottawa
Daniel Kofman

Fundamental Philosophical Questions PHI 1103 Notes on Utilitarianism Daniel Kofman Utilitarianism: The term was invented by Jeremy Bentham (early 19 century) to describe his view that an action is right if it leads to the greatest overall happiness relative to available alternatives. He summed up his view with the slogan “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”. The expression is ambiguous, since in some circumstances one could create greater happiness but for a smaller number, or less happiness for a greater number. But it is clear that he favoured greatest (or maximum) aggregate happiness, calculated by adding up all the happinesses of each individual (minus their pains). So the “number” of individuals is only relevant as a factor in the overall aggregate, but has no other relevance. Bentham was also a hedonic utilitarian, meaning that he then defined happiness in simple terms of pleasure minus pain. But he also used the general term ‘utility’(hence the concept of utilitarianism) and spoke of ‘utils’as the units by which one calculated how much good was produced by some action. Other, more sophisticated versions, try to maximise not just pleasure (and minimise pain) but to maximise welfare, well-being, or (especially popular among economists) preference satisfaction. The latter is well-suited to a market economy, the appeal of which stems from its responsiveness to the preferences of consumers. Akey element of utilitarianism, and also itsAchilles’heel: it judges actions by whether they maximise aggregate good in society, and therefore appears indifferent to the distribution of the good. You add up all the pleasure, or happiness, ‘utils’, preferences satisfied, or whatever, and whichever action leads to the greatest quantith is the right action. Butthhe standard objection, running from Immanuel Kant (18 century) to John Rawls (20 century) is that an action can be morally unacceptable even if it maximises the aggregate good, because it might require the sacrifice of some particular individual’s good. On Rawls’formulation, utilitarianism allows you to sacrifice the rights of some individuals for the sake of others, so doesn’t take individuals seriously. Deontology: Theories that emphasise non-reducible rights and duties are called deontological. Kantian ethics and the Rawlsian theory of justice are the most famous. Rawls: individuals have rights that may not be sacrificed no matter how much aggregate social utility is thereby produced. Even if everyone living on a block would derive great happiness by expropriating one house and turning the lot into a playground, it is impermissible that they do so without the owner’s consent; otherwise they are violating his right to his property (which is equal to their rights to theirs).An ethnic majority may not oppress a minority even if the overall ensuing happiness outweighs the increased misery of the minority (say the minority was docile enough not to mind too much, and that the majority was so selfish as to derive great pleasure from the exploitation). 1. Objections to hedonic act-utilitarianism inaugurates a long history of backtracking. Here are some important objections (by no means exhaustive): (1) Incommensurability: Can different pains or pleasures be compared? Can one really quantify over a wide range of different comforts and discomforts, pleasures and displeasures, ecstasies and agonies, etc.? Can one assign quantities to experiences of mild pain, mental anguish, general displeasure, indignation, all on the negative scale, and then joy, contentment, exhilaration, appreciation, approval, all on the positive side, and each one of these of different objects, and somehow be able to weigh these all against each other? If not the entire project of utilitarianism would seem to collapse. (2) Adaptive preferences – people can adjust the degree to which they are satisfied by lowering their demands, but is this good? InAesop’s fable, the fox that couldn’t reach the grapes says, Oh, they must have been sour anyway. People often think this way when they can’t get a job, or are poor, or even when they are victims of injustice. Oppressed minorities may internalise the negative views of them by the dominant group, and then be more inclined to accept their disadvantaged lot. Women may come to think in a patriarchal society that their place in the home is “natural”, virtuous, or commanded by God. But insofar as they come to be satisfied with their oppression by not viewing it as oppression, this internalisation will raise aggregate welfare levels. But surely that is morally unsatisfactory. If the utilitarians’original intuitions were that a good ethical theory will strive to satisfy as many people’s preferences as possible, it must be a serious problem if many of those preferences are merely adaptive: people lowering their expectations and accepting (‘preferring’) their lousy lot in life just because it seems that they can’t get any better. (3) Multiple values. Happiness ain’t everything, especially if understood hedonically as merely pleasure and absence of pain. Dignity, truth, beauty, creativity, understanding, all might be important values that are not reducible to pleasure. Genuineness of experience might also be valuable in itself, or valuable to realise these other values. Nozick’s experience machine: if you agree that you wouldn’t want to spend your life plugged into a machine that gave you the illusion of having all sorts of wonderful experiences that weren’t genuine (and hence the accompanying sensations but without the real experiences), then you probably think that the genuineness of experience, and not just the effect it has on your mental state, is valuable, especially if it is a good experience. That is one of the reasons why use, or at any rate overuse, of recreational drugs is frequently held in disdain. Beyond happiness, not only living in reality, but being creative and productive, having real friends who like you for your real character traits, people who admire you for your real achievements, and so on, is important; so not just pleasure but how you get the pleasure. (4) Justice (most important objection) - utilitarianism is blind to distribution. Consider: torturing an innocent to please sadists. Say torture produces x amt. of pain. So x amount of pleasure + 1 util experienced by sadists witnessing the torture would tip the balance in favour of doing it. There must be some number n of sadists who would derive more than x satisfaction. (Suppose the video goes viral among the sadist community. Or consider child porn watched by a “sufficient” number of paedophiles so that their pleasure outweighs the harm done to the child). Justice seems to imply fairness. Fairness seems to imply that everyone be considered equally. Utilitarianism doesn’t care directly how pleasure and pain are distributed; it only cares about maximising the aggregate. Suppose you think equality is valuable. So a distribution of 10, 10, 10 in a society would be better than 4, 9, 17 or 7, 10, 13. But util. seems to say that 4, 4, 23 is better than all these, since the aggregate is higher. Note: you might allow that 10, 10, 15 is better than 10, 10, 10 since no one is made worse off, but think that 8, 12, 15 is worse than 10 10 10 because one person is made worse off. These questions take one to the heart of distributive justice, but utilitarianism seems oblivious to the intrinsic importance of distribution. (5) Overdemandingness: a theory that tells you to maximise the good in the overall state of affairs of the world is an incredibly demanding theory, which might enjoin you to abandon all your personal goals, attachments, projects, and values. More on this below. Some students upon first learning about utilitarianism confuse it with egoism: that each individual should seek to maximise her own pleasure or happiness or desire-fulfillment. Utilitarianism is the very opposite: it enjoins one to maximise aggregate happiness in the entire universe. In that sense it is a highly altruistic theory that even obliterates the distinction between the supererogatory – going beyond the call of duty – and what ordinary duty requires. This objection is that it is too altruistic, to the point of being overdemanding. Your own family, friends, and projects are only worth their tiny proportion of the happiness of the entire universe; their special significance to you counts for nothing, except in that you my be in a better position to affect them. Consequentialism: 2 and 3 are possibly answered by shifting from utilitarianism to consequentialism, the view that an action is right if it maximises the good in general, which need not be merely pleasure or happiness. Sophisticated versions allow that the good can be constituted by different values: liberty, welfare, happiness, and even moral goods such as equality. (You could have an egalitarian consequentialism that judges an action to be right if it leads to greater equality in the overall state of affairs. You could even be a rights-consequentialist: an action is right if it maximises respect for rights – see below). Consequentialism: The term was coined byAnscombe as a term of opprobrium – it was what was wrong with utilitarianism in her eyes. But then several philosophers with some utilitarian inclinations but who were sensitive to the above longstanding objections to utilitarianism took up consequentialism as a positive doctrine. From Bentham to Mill: The early utilitarian tradition with Bentham was very robust – very reformist. The generation after Bentham became much more apologetic and accommodating, claiming that utilitarianism just explains most of our ordinary moral traditions, and captures what’s best inAristotle, Jesus, etc. Bentham had provocatively opined that it was better to be a pig satisfied than Socrates dissatisfied. Along tradition of backtracking from this began in earnest with Bentham’s successor, John Stuart Mill. Backtrack 1: evaluative qualitative distinctions between pleasures: higher and lower Mill took it all back: it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. Why? Because Socrates has higher pleasures that are worth more than the greatest amount of lower pleasures. Haydn and the Oyster: you are a soul, and an angel asks you to choose between two options: be the great composer Haydn, who lived a normal 18 century human life span, or be an oyster, but with a life span so long – say, 10,000, or 100,000 years – that the pleasure it will contain will be greater than that experienced by Haydn. If all pleasures are commensurable, such that only the intensity and duration vary, in other words the only differences are quantitative, then there must be some duration long enough that even the low intensity pleasure of the oyster will outweigh the short duration ‘high intensity’pleasure of Haydn. Mill: Higher pleasures are infinitely more valuable than lower pleasures, as proved by the fact that anyone who has experienced both will always prefer the higher to the lower. Sometimes Mill speaks of the higher as intellectual. So, anyone who learned chess will never go back to playing chequers because the former is more intellectually interesting. But sometimes Mill speaks as if any two pleasures can be compared to see which is ‘higher’and which is ‘lower’. ‘Higher’here sounds like higher value. Mill says: Pleasures vary in quality too, not just quantity. Yes, but ‘higher/lower’implies a distinction not just between qualities in the non-evaluative sense, but qualities in the evaluative sense. It is not just saying that the taste of chocolate is a different qualitative experience than listening to Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. It is saying that one is better, higher, than the other. But if that is so, Mill can’t make that consistent with mere hedonic utilitarianism; he can’t make these rankings consistent with saying that pleasure is the only thing of value, because he needs some other value in order to call one kind of pleasure ‘higher’(i.e. more valuable) than another kind of pleasure. Philosophers in other traditions – Kant,Aristotle – would say, Of course doing philosophy is more valuable than the pleasure of a pig wallowing in mud – it’s using reason and intellect, and therefore has dignity, is ennobling, and so on. But Mill can’t quite allow himself to say that because he’s still trying to be loyal to the dogma of Bentham and Mill’s father, James Mill, that there is only a single value: pleasure. 2 backtracking: justice and equality Mill also argued that there were good utilitarian grounds for justice and equality. But even if his arguments are correct that aggregate happiness will be increased by following justice and equality, is that the reason why one should be just? Is that the reason why I shouldn’t steal an old lady’s purse – because doing so will lower aggregate happiness overall? Is the reason governments shouldn’t arbitrarily arrest anyone that doing so would make everyone in the long term less happy, or is it not an injustice to the very people arrested, plain and simple? Mill thinks justice marks out the most important human interests, and thus the most important parts of happiness. But the question remains: why not sacrifice some individuals’happiness for the sake of others if you could maximise the aggregate that way? Mill implies that doing so would not maximise happiness, but even if that “actuarial consideration” (Rawls) were true, is that the right reason? Is it not simply that it is unfair to do so, because it violates a person’s rights? (That is the deontological view). Another conciliatory argument later utilitarians developed is that of declining marginal utility. The more income, say, you give to one person, the less benefit they will derive with it compared to the benefit to someone much worse off. So that is a reason to distribute income and resources more equally.Again, even if true, is that the only reason to do so? Deontologists think fairness and justice are reasons in themselves, not mere instrumental strategies for maximising long-term happiness. 3 backtracking: preference satisfaction Some utilitarians try to maximise preference satisfaction rather than happiness, to get around problems of incommensurability. But what about external preferences? It’s fine if everyone has preferences just about their own lives in ways that don’t affect others. But people also have preferences about other people’s lives and property. And why should racist, sexist, or selfish preferences count equally with others? th 4 backtracking: consequentialism, not utilitarianism. Consequentialism can accommodate more values than happiness or ‘utility’. But act-consequentialism (that you should always do the act that maximises the good overall) is just as vulnerable as act-utilitarianism to a massive objection: that the theory is overdemanding (objection 5 above) and undermines personal goals, attachments, commitments, and values. On some formulations it is also self-defeating. So this leads to the fifth major backtracking from the original Benthamite hedonic act-utilitarianism. 5 backtracking: rule-consequentialism, not act-consequentialism; or, if you still prefer utilitarianism, rule-utilitarianism, not act-utilitarianism. Act and rule consequentialism: Different theories have different approaches to rules. Even within a theory such as consequentialism, there are different approaches to rules. 2. Act-consequentialism (act-c.):An act is morally right if, of all possible acts available to the agent at the time, it is the act which leads to the best consequences overall (in the entire world). 3. Objection to act-c.: If everyone tried to follow act-consequentialism they would actually end up making everyone worse off. Reason: If they constantly had to decide which act would promote the best consequences, they would have to be willing at every moment to abandon personal commitments, attachments to loved ones, friends, compatriots, personal projects, and rules promoting sincerity, loyalty, devotion, and so forth. But abandoning or undermining these would make us all worse off, since these are among the most important goods that we have. Note: the objection is not: if everyone followed act-c. we would all be worse off. Recall:Act-c. says: do the action that will maximise the good. So it is logically impossible that everyone be worse off if everyone is always actually maximising the good. So if it’s true that undermining sincerity and commitments, and abandoning personal projects and attachments, would at some point actually tip the balance toward making things worse, then act-c. would say not to do it. That’s why the objection stresses that everyone would be worse only if everyone tried to follow act-c., not if they actually did follow it. Sometimes the objection is put in the form of a claim that act-c. is self-defeating. The point can be put this way: Since if everyone tries to follow act-c. they will actually make things worse, maybe the best way to promote the best consequences is if everyone just follows their ordinary morality. But then the theory is pretty useless and even self- defeating, since it will now amount to the peculiar theory: to realise the aims of act-c., ignore act-c. and just follow your common moral views (don’t lie, don’t cheat, be loyal to friends and family, pursue your personal projects, etc.). 4. Rule consequentialism (rule-c.): In face of the above objection, some theorists have tried to save what seems to them the element of truth in consequentialism – that acting morally must have something to do with producing good consequences – while combining it with the agent following rules (which the deontologist opponents make central). They thus propose rule-consequentialism (as an alternative to act- consequentialism): an act is right if it conforms to rules the general compliance with which would lead to the best consequences. So you choose rules because if everyone followed them it would lead to the best consequences. It’s still consequentialism because the justification of the rules is in terms of the good consequences they would promote. And the theory is still trying to maximise this good. But it does so now by saying that everyone should follow certain rules. 5. Objection to rule-c.: Some object that rule-c. collapses into act-c.:Assume a set of rules: be sincere, be loyal to friends and loved ones, pursue your personal projects with devotion, as well as do not kill, steal, etc.According to the definition of rule-c., they are selected because general compliance with them would promote the best consequences. But if the rules are any good, that is, if they are reasonable and really have a chance of promoting the best consequences, they will not be crude but instead incorporate exceptions into the rules. For instance, do not kill admits of the exception of self-defense. Do not lie, on a reasonable interpretation (i.e. not Kant’s!), presumably admits of the exception: unless to save an innocent life. So originally crude rules can be refined by modifications that incorporate exceptions. But then any time some actA would promote better consequences by violating a rule than any alternative act that complied with the rule, one should presumably modify the original rule to incorporate this exception. But now we are back to the act-consequentialist view that says you should evaluate each situation independently of the rules and decide what to do on the basis of which act will promote the best consequences. In other words, each rule becomes modified or refined to such an extent – with exceptions to exceptions to exceptions, etc. - that the entire corpus of rules becomes co-extensive with act-c. Finally, we can replace this elaborate corpus of rules with the single rule of act-c.: perform the act that will promote the best consequences. (After all, that’s a rule too, so act-c. is like a on
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